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A No-Win Situation


In backyards Islandwide, the nightmare next door
Neighbor's buried oil tank threatens their lives, home.
Neighbor's buried oil tank elicits unfriendly feelings

THE BERGMANNS didn't strike oil; oil struck them -- and hasn't stopped.

It bubbles up in the side yard through a post hole the family calls "Mount Vesuvius," seeps into the crawl space under the first floor, and saturates the foundation's concrete walls. A petroleum smell wafts through the backyard, and plastic jars of oily water are piled in the garage in case anyone wants to see what the leak from their next-door neighbor's old oil tank has done to the groundwater beneath their Massapequa home.

"We put our heart and soul into this house. Now we can't give it away," said Drew Bergmann, an electrician who with his wife, Beth, has spent $125,000 virtually rebuilding the cape in the past 20 years.

About half of the fuel spills in Long Island and Queens involve heating oil, and while those leaks tend to be smaller and less damaging to groundwater than gasoline spills, they can be a nightmare for the people involved. Oil is less toxic than gasoline, and it degrades faster and moves more slowly in soil and groundwater. But tens of thousands of aging tanks buried beneath lawns and driveways are vulnerable to costly leaks, especially if they're near the South Shore, where the water table is high and subject to tidal flows that can corrode them.

At the Bergmanns' house, the seemingly endless supply of heating oil is coming from just a few feet away. The Bergmanns first smelled oil in October, 1996, and state investigators traced the contamination to neighbor Gail Petagno's tank. buried in her side yard. When a work crew pulled up the tank a few days later, it was severely damaged and the soil around it was soaked in oil.

Since then, a company hired by Petagno's insurance company has dug a series of collection wells at the spill site and installed a pumping system to collect oily groundwater. But the pumps haven't prevented oil from seeping into the Bergmanns' basement, and the neighbors' dispute has snowballed into a lawsuit that threatens each of them with financial calamity.

The Bergmanns hired a lawyer, Joseph Walsh of Babylon, and filed suit in mid-1997 against Petagno, her oil company and Blue Ridge Insurance Co. after it declared it wouldn't pay for more cleanup because Petagno was about to reach her homeowners policy's $100,000 limit.

Petagno, a widow with two grown children who has lived there for 37 years, said she's felt blindsided since the day the leak was discovered. "There was no way of knowing this was a problem," she said, explaining there was never any indication she was using more oil than in past years. "This has been devastating for me."

Meanwhile, with no one willing to pay for a more extensive cleanup, there's been no progress for more than a year on getting more oil out of the ground. And while the state Department of Environmental Conservation has agreed to do a more thorough cleanup, that work hasn't started yet.

Even if the state solves the problem, someone else likely will pay for the cleanup because the state probably will try to recover its costs by suing whoever is at fault. The company that filled Petagno's tank, Slomins Inc., has said the leak isn't its fault, and a lawyer for Blue Ridge said the insurer has fulfilled its obligation under Petagno's policy.

That would leave Petagno and the Bergmanns. The Bergmann's children once played with Petagno's grandkids, but now the neighbors speak to each other only through their lawyers.

Walsh, the Bergmanns' lawyer, said it's a nobody-wins situation he's seen many times in handling oil spill cases. "It's the worst possible scenario."